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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Cost

In the last couple of days, I've come across a number of sites and news broadcasts that list how many of (x) item we could buy for $700,000,000,000 - or the projected current cost of the US Financial Sector bailout.

- Jeff Jarvis on Buzz Machine talks about how we could Wi-Max the whole country and give damned near everybody in the world a laptop and Internet access, or provide a decent college education for a hell of a lot of folks.

- Tongue firmly in cheek, Gary Robbins at OCregister mentions that we could get breast implants for 70 million women (I'm assuming that Gary meant 140 actual implants, vice creating 70 million lopsided women, though I didn't actually do the math).

- The SunSentinel says they could get 21 new Marlin Stadiums for each county in the state of Florida.

- The generic blond bimbo on Headline News this morning mentioned that we could buy ourselves seven International space stations for $700 billion, though I'm not sure she wasn't talking about the space between her pretty ears.

And so on and so forth. The suggestions are many and varied, some silly and some less so - like say paying off the national debt or paying for the Bush Doctrine (which may actually be one and the same). However, all of these suggestions depend on the basic assumption that we actually have $700,000,000,000 stuffed under the Fed's mattress - which, of course, we don't.

We're going to have to borrow it, which means we're going to have to pay it back.

Now, the Fed is able to get a fairly decent interest rate, around two to four percent depending on a number of factors (and which actually turns out to be considerably higher when you start to factor in things like the dollar's decreasing value compared to foreign currency over time, the slipping GDP, and the transfer of our industrial base overseas, and etc). Just like anybody else, when we borrow money, we have to pay it back and that means we're going to have a lot less discretionary funds to spend on other things.

We're going to have to give some stuff up.

When an individual gets in over his or her head they've got two choices, 1) go bankrupt, file Chapter 11, and these days likely end up homeless - or 2) tighten the belt, buy carefully and make every dollar count, sell off the things they don't actually need, cancel cable and the paper and the magazine subscriptions, sell the SUV and buy a small cheap old car, and give up thoughts of home improvement and that vacation to Jamaica Mon, get a second job, and so on.

And that's the same choice we face as a nation. We can either go bankrupt (don't think that can happen to a Super Power? You didn't watch the USSR implode, did you?), or we can suck it up, take out the loan, and find the funds to pay it off from programs we really like but can no longer afford.

And I suspect that's exactly what we'll try to do.

So what's this bailout really going to cost us? What did the arrogant greedy bastards with multi-million dollar salaries and even higher bonuses saddle us and our children with?

I'm not clairvoyant, but I've been around enough to make some pretty good guesses.

First I'd say it's going to cost us The Pillars of Creation.

From Stonekettle Station

See, two days ago the primary data channel on the Hubble Space Telescope failed, which means the scope is basically dead in orbit. The scope still works, but the information it collects can't be downloaded to Earth. There's a backup channel, and NASA is going to try and reactivate it later this week, but if that doesn't work, or if the backup fails, the Hubble is lost. Now, NASA was supposed to launch a final repair and refurbishment mission next month. But with the sudden failure of the primary data transmitter, that's been put on hold until next year. Want to bet that it doesn't fly?

And speaking of being a space faring nation, NASA has pushed back, yet again, the launch date for the Aries/Orion shuttle replacement. The shuttle goes out of service in 2010 and Aries/Orion will not fly prior to 2015 at the earliest, want to bet that date slips right and right and right again as the budget dries up? We were supposed to return to the moon in 2022 and then go on to Mars. Anybody want to bet that when we get there, if we get there, it'll be as passengers on a Chinese Moon ship? Think I'm being an alarmist? Starting in 2010 we'll be riding to our own space station onboard Russian built spacecraft, if we can afford them that is.

Space is a luxury we likely will no longer be able to afford.

As is education, big science, national infrastructure, military strength, housing and assistance for the poor, environmental protection and enforcement, energy research, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and expensive wars in foreign lands. Look carefully at all the things the Federal government pays for routinely, then ask yourself which ones are most likely to be cut when people start to grow desperate.

It is very likely that this disaster and the price of the bailout will not only cost us our position in the world, but the very stars themselves.

I hope to hell it was worth it.

I doubt our children will think so.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Iceberg! Right Ahead!

Update: This post is a follow-up to yesterday's post: The US Economic Situation for the Complete Idiot.

In the post below, I advocated that the bailout bill contain a provision for punishing those responsible for the current financial meltdown. Commenters Ilya and Eric pointed out that this is not a good idea, and they are correct. Further expansion of my thoughts, and theirs can be found in the comments section.

My proposal for a long term, permanent fix can be found here.

- Jim

________________________________


In April of 1912 the largest passenger steamship then in the world, RMS Titanic, set sail from Southampton, England for New York.

You've seen the movies, you've heard the tale, and you all know what happened, right?

On the night of Sunday, April 14th, moving at full speed she struck an iceberg off Grand Banks, Newfoundland, gashed a 300 foot hole in her bow, and sank two and a half hours later with a massive loss of life.

Why did it happen?

Well, historians talk about rivets and brittle steel in cold water, calm seas and icebergs and excessive speed, a rudder too small for the vessel's size and a resulting lack of maneuverability at speed, watertight bulkheads that weren't actually water tight enough, the distribution of flooded compartments, buoyancy, the lack of lifeboats, and the state of the art in shipbuilding and iceberg predication and communications and etc. Wrong. All wrong. While it can be demonstrated that all of those things exacerbated the disaster once Titanic was set on her course with destiny, not one of those things was the underlying reason for the sinking.

So what was?

Having been a Sailor most of my life, and as an experienced bridge officer myself, I can say with complete confidence that Titanic sank for one reason and one reason only:

Hubris.

Hubris: overbearing pride and/or presumption; utter and abject arrogance.

Hubris, the belief that a ship sailing full speed ahead in dark and deadly waters without the ability to see the known dangers, without adequate safety equipment, will somehow make port safely simply because you so will it.

Hubris, the enthusiastic willingness to gamble with other people's lives and livelihoods, and the willingness to dismiss the warning signs of impending disaster or wrong doing with the belief that you will beat the odds where all others throughout history have not.

Hubris, the belief that it is perfectly acceptable to play God, to risk a disaster on a grand scale, far beyond your own personal concerns in order to advance your own wealth and pride and self worth, and the belief that those who are cast off in the disaster you created are lesser men who somehow deserve their fate in the frigid waters.

Hubris, the belief that great men dare greatly, and that should disaster fall, those great men should be rescued at the expense of others, set back on their feet, and allowed to try again.

And Hubris, my friends, is exactly what brings us to the current disaster unfolding in the United States financial sector today.

Just like with the Titanic, prideful greedy men set on us a course for disaster. Those captains of Wall Street, in their pride and arrogance, deliberately ignored the lessons of history, 1929, the S&L crash of the 70's, the Dot Com bust of the 90's, and all the rest of it. They ordered the boilers lit and the throttles pushed hard to the stops, in order to line their own pockets and to advance their own hubris, and they took all of us down here in steerage along for the ride.

And when we slammed head on at full speed into the iceberg, those arrogant bastards were the first ones to the lifeboats, - or the golden parachutes, choose your own analogy here - demanding safe passage from the crew, or in this case, the government, as they believe is their right.

And, just exactly like the pride of White Star Lines, there's not enough lifeboats to go around, and a lot of us are going to be left to sink or swim in the icy wine dark water.

OK, I've pushed the Titanic analogy to the breaking point - but the comparison is apt.

We seemed to have settled on the term "Meltdown" to describe the current financial crisis in the combined mortgage, S&L, and Investment financial services industry, and so that's the term I'll use here.

This meltdown was the result of hubris both large and small. As I described in the previous post, the meltdown is the result of a rather large number of prideful idiots:

- Those who failed to read the fine print on those interest only mortgages or utterly failed to see the implication of the conditions of the loan - or did, but thought, somehow, some way, that they would be able to refinance before the first balloon payment came due, despite the fact that instead of saving and working to build some kind of equity and collateral for that refinanced loan, they just kept spending and borrowing their way further into massive debt - in some cases you had couples with a combined income in the $100,000 range with debts totaling well over a million dollars, they couldn't pay the interest, let alone the principle. That, my friends, is the height of stupid greedy pride. These are the same clueless dolts who thought they would be able to sell those houses at a profit in time to stave off impending financial ruin, while driving past thousands of new construction sites and thousands more homes for sale, as everybody else jumped on the snake-oil mortgage bandwagon. On the Titanic, these are the people kicking around blocks of ice on mid-deck and having a jolly old snowball fight.

- Those greedy, dishonest bastards in the S&L business, who not satisfied with the pile of dough they were already sitting on, found a way to turn worthless loans into the largest bait and switch scam in history. These bastards, more than anybody else are responsible for the disaster, they dreamed it up and they deliberately hoodwinked as many suckers as they could find. In the Titanic analogy, these people are personified by J. Bruce Ismay, who placed profit and pride above safety.

- Those in the rating agencies, who gave those worthless bonds AAA ratings, who allowed themselves to be deceived, who bowed to pressure from the S&L's and from Wall Street Investment firms instead of actually doing their jobs. These people were the enablers, they didn't just let it happen, they actively encouraged it. On Titanic? Well, that would be Captain E. J. Smith himself, now wouldn't it? Savvy, experienced, who knew the danger and knew his responsibility to his ship and passengers and still ordered the last four boilers lit and the ship ahead at her maximum speed in utter disregard for good seamanship. And then went to bed.

- Those on Wall Street who jumped at the chance to build a house of cards on top of those worthless bonds, and then borrowed their way beyond any kind of rational sense when it all began to come apart - and still kept paying their departing executives astronomical bonuses for their brilliant leadership. These would be the White Star shareholders who cared little for the danger, as long as they got a dividend check each quarter.

- And finally those in government agencies and in Congress whose job it was to oversee and regulate the industry - and didn't. And here, the we don't need an analogy, because the government's role is this disaster is exactly the same as in the Titanic sinking. Exactly.

And so, now here we are. Today, Congress will vote on a bailout package, in fact has just voted it down as I type this - and "bailout" is exactly the right term here. If you're a fighter jock and you've been pulling some unauthorized stunts with your tax-payer owned, multi-million dollar aircraft and you screw the pooch and flame out, well, you pull the handle and punch the hell out of the cockpit. And that's exactly what's going on here, Wall Street Executives are pulling the ejection handle to the tune of $700,000,000,000 and leaving us with a giant smoking crater for our money.

Now, show of hands, how many of you think that we're going to get out of the current financial market meltdown for a mere $700,000,000,000?

If you do, you really haven't been paying attention. $700,000,000,000 has about as much chance of pulling us out of this tailspin, as Bush's tax refund did of stimulating the economy.

$700,000,000,000 is just the tip of the iceberg - and yes, I'm back to Titanic metaphors again. See, just like when that ship went down, some of the crew responsible for the disaster ended up in the lifeboats. They had to be there, because those boats needed experienced and trained crew to man them in order to save what passengers who were lucky and/or ruthless enough to find a seat onboard. Same here, we're going to have to save some of the institutions responsible for the meltdown, for the benefit of the rest of us - no matter how galling that may be. As satisfying as it would be to let Wall Street go down with the ship, all of us will suffer unless we save a few of those greedy bastards.

Don't get me wrong here, while I think that circumstances dictate that we must bail out Wall Street, and the Federal Government is the only entity large enough to do so, I don't think that they should in any way get off Scot-free. (and for the record, Scot-free is precisely the correct term, as it's etymology descends from the old English term Sceot, or tax. Those who didn't pay taxes were referred as getting off Scot-free or without payment or without punishment).

There are many, many problems, however, with performing a bailout of the financial industry.

- First and foremost, the process simply perpetuates the original reasons for the meltdown. Investment firms borrowed trillions to prop up their pyramid scheme. The federal government will have to borrow nearly a trillion, or more, themselves when all is said and done to fix the mess. We're in debt up to our children's eyeballs now, with the war and energy and inflation - tacking another trillion on top of that isn't going to improve the dollar's value against foreign currency at all. We will all pay for this, and so will our children, and maybe their children too.

- Second, a bailout rewards those responsible for the meltdown. Those who lost their homes (foolish though they may have been for getting themselves into ridiculous mortgage terms) lost everything, nobody bailed them out. Like the steerage passengers on Titanic, they've been left to the flood. Why should the S&L's and Investment Firm execs be any different? A bailout sends a very clear message that no matter how negligent they have been in their duties, no matter how blinded by greed and speed, there will always be room in the lifeboat for them, at the expense of those they climbed over to get there. The bailout simply reinforces the hubris they already believe themselves entitled to.

- Third, a bailout sets a precedent, or in this case perpetuates one. It says very clearly, just as it did the last time, that no matter what happens, those that control the financial heart of this country may act without regard for anything other than their own greed and avarice, despite the fact that their irresponsible actions affect all of us.

- And finally, the bailout bill, as currently drafted will nationalize a large part of the financial industry. If there is one thing we know about the free market, no matter how poorly greedy executives manage the market and industry, the government is far, far worse at it. And once the government is directly involved, it is absolutely impossible to get them out of it. I see a lot of calls this morning for nationalization of the banking industry - and this is just as shortsighted and idiotic as the decisions that led directly to the current mess. Seriously, folks, do you really want the same incompetent jackasses who brought you the War on [Drugs, Terrorism, Poverty, etc et al] running Wall Street? Really?

So, what do we do about it?

Well, I don't know. I'm certainly no expert on the economy. I can say few things with confidence when it comes to fixing the current situation - and I strongly suspect that nobody else can either, especially the 'experts' who aimed us square at the iceberg.

I will say a couple of things though:

- While there is a pressing to need to get a fix implemented, sooner rather than later, we need to proceed with common sense and an eye on the implications of whenever solutions are approved. It took a decade of mistakes to get us into this mess, and I seriously doubt that a bill slapped together by Congress at the eleventh hour is going to fix the problem or do anything but get us further into the hole. We need to take whatever time is necessary and find real solutions and long term corrections, rather than just throw money we don't have at Wall Street.

- I think that any presidential candidate who attempts to turn this mess to his own political gain in order to score points with the voters should be run out of town on a rusty rail - and I am looking directly at you, John McCain. So far, McCain's only concrete response to the crisis is to blame Barrack Obama, and for that if for nothing else he will not now, or ever, get my vote. Period. Now, I don't think Obama's response has been particularly exemplary either, but McCain has cast himself in the same foul cloth of the Bush Administration and frankly from where I sit I can no longer tell the two apart. If he truly thinks at this point that as a Senator his duty is to the country, then honor demands he perform that duty without regard for his own ambition. The mere fact that he can't shows exactly how far behind he's left his training as a Naval Officer, and exactly how similar his own hubris is to those who got us into this mess in the first place.

- And speaking of those who got us into this mess, I won't support any bail-out bill that does not directly punish, and severely, those arrogant greedy bastards. The executives of every S&L and investment firm involved in this process should be bankrupted, their personal assets seized and liquidated to help pay the trillion dollar debt they've levied on us without our consent or approval. I'm talking every penny, every stitch of clothing, every house, car, boat, bank account and bonus - and then dump them on the street in front of a homeless shelter. Fuck 'em, hard.

They're lowering the lifeboats half full of smug arrogant bastards in top hats and frock coats, and a chill wind is blowing. Many of my fellow passengers are going to end up in the water and there is neither room in the boats, or rescue on the horizon. The Captain of this disaster is still standing on the bridge, hopelessly twisting the wheel back and forth instead of out on deck taking charge, rallying the crew and passengers and saving what he can.

And meanwhile, in Congress, the band plays on - unfortunately, the tune they've chosen is Send in the Clowns.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The US Economic Situation for the Complete Idiot

The US National economy is in the toilet.

I know, I know, you're shocked at this news and I'm sorry to be the one to have to tell you. But it's true and we need to face it.

But Jim, everything was going so well. How, how, did this happen? I hear you ask in that wounded whiny tone you have. Help us, Jim, help us to understand why the economy has turned on us in such an ugly and brutal fashion.

Well, I'll do my best to explain it, but be warned, the economy is a complicated beasty and only snotty elitists can fully understand it. Now, don't be scared, I'll speak slowly and wave my arms around a lot. If I'm going too fast, raise your hand and I'll try to use smaller words. No child will be left behind, folks.

______________________

First, the Cliff Notes version:

Fundamentally, the current economic meltdown is based on the following principle: Never ever under any circumstance allow anybody to ask either of the following questions:

a) "Do I really need this? Do I?"

-and/or-

b) "Can I actually afford this without mortgaging my soul to Satan for all of eternity?"

Instead, starting at as young of age as possible, aggressively encourage individuals, organizations, business, industry, and government to chant boldly:

a) "I am full of self esteem and I deserve this!"

-and/or-

b) "My God! The neighbors will be so jealous! I've got to have this!"

* in the above explanation, "This" is defined as basically any product or service. "This" could be a $50K SUV with spinning hubcaps, gold trim, fur lined ass-massaging seats, and an engine the size of Nebraska, pulling a trailer full of recreational watercraft. "This" could be a 4,000 sqft McMansion in California wine country with a pool, sauna, and genuine Disneyesque Princess bedrooms. "This" could be a bizillion percent per annum growth in corporate wealth. Or "this" could be a pointless military adventure in a foreign land. The scale may change, but the basic idea remains the same.

And there you have it. Thanks for paying attention.

Now run right out and buy yourself something nice to make you feel all self-actualized and full of manly esteem. That's how you help the economy.

__________________

What? You're still here. And still confused?

Well, hell, I told you it was complicated.

Sigh.

OK, I'll explain in detail.

We'll start with the following illustration to better help explain things:

___________________

For this illustration of how the US Economy works, we'll use a quote from the best damned Danny DeVito movie of all time, Ruthless People:

The scene takes place in a home electronics store. Twenty-something year-old Joe Average America, a product of the "My Child is a Super Star Full of Self Esteem" bumper sticker generation, is trying to decide if he should buy a stereo system that he can't, no way, no how, afford but really, really wants:

Salesman (Uncle Sam, played by Wall Street): Check it out, my man! Thirty feet of thigh-slapping, blood-pumping nuclear brain damage!
Kid (Joe America): Bitchin'! Hey, what's it fucking cost?
Salesman: That's the bitchin' part about it! It don't matter! If you can't afford it, fucking finance it! So what if it's as big as a fridge and costs as much! You'll never have to get another one! This is gonna be with you for the rest of your life! And when you die, they can bury you in it!
Kid: Awesome, Dude!

_____________________

The above illustration describes, precisely, the fundamental principles of the modern American economy, which can be summed up as follows:

Take cheap worthless crap and convince people that they should spend piles of money on it in order to make themselves feel more empowered. If they don't have any money, give them some and pretend that they'll pay it back eventually, with interest. Convince other people that this process actually contains some kind of intrinsic value, and then sell the process to them. For extra credit, convince people that saving money and buying only those things you actually need and can afford is for unAmerican Croissant eating pisswillies.

Whoa! I hear you say, that sounds risky.

Not at all. See, take a something like a car, which has a basic, low, value. Now, in America, a car tells the world what kind of person you are - it's kind of like a wearable billboard that advertises the length of your manhood or the size of your womanly charms. Basic low value car, basic low value person, i.e. Loser. But, if you add some plastic fairing, gold rims, XM Radio, and slap the word "Limited RMS Titanic Edition" on the side despite the fact that you're making a trillion cars exactly the same, advertise that it'll go from dead stop to light speed in less time than it takes George W. Bush to lie, and then for good measure you super-size that sucker - well, it basically quadruples in value. Big Shiny SUV = Zoom Zoom, Winner!

The technical economic term for this process is: Whore It Up and They'll Be Saying "Awesome, Dude! I Gotta Get Me Some of That!" Whore it up enough, and they'll be saying "Screw the upside-down loan payments, I gotta get me a new one of those every two years!"

For the rest of this text, I'll refer to this process as the "PT" or "polished turd" principle. And the PT Principle applies at all levels of the economy, both large and small.

Let's take Wall Street for example.

Start with the basics:

1) Banks like money, especially other people's money.

2) Just like national intelligence reports, money can be created whole cloth from nothing.

3) Now, take something worthless and apply the PT Principle.

4) Convince investors that this is a good idea.

Step four sounds difficult, but it's actually the easiest part of the process. See investors like safe investments, but they also want to give the appearance of being true maverick devil-take-all risk takers who live on the edge, movers and shakers, and generally men about town. Now, historically investment banking is a risky business, but savings and loan banking is pretty safe. Only there's a catch - you don't make a lot of money in the savings and loan business, compared to investment banking anyway. And what money you do make takes a long time. Patience doesn't exactly fit into the maverick investor image. So, a while back, some bright guy got the idea to bundle those Savings and Loan mortgages together, then turned the resulting bundle into a bond, and sold that to investors at a big fat commission - and in the process dumped the risk on the investor.

Brilliant.

The bank loans money to a home buyer on a 30-year fixed mortgage at the current interest rate. If the principle was $180K at 5.5% annual interest, the total payback over 30 years is about $368K, i.e. the bank makes a profit of nearly $190K. The problem is that it takes thirty years. So, you take a bunch of those pink slips, bundle them together and sell them to an investment bank who uses them to power up Wall Street. Not only does the bank get their money now, they get a commission too.

For a bank, that's just about as good as it gets short of owning their own mint and printing press.

And in America, if it's good - well, then more is better, super-size me, Baby.

Now, at this point, those mortgages actually have some real value - the value of the physical properties they represent, and the promised moola over time. Bundle enough of them together, sort of like finding loose change in the couch cushions and putting it into coin rolls, and you're talking major bucks here. Trillions actually.

And everybody on Wall Street said predictably enough, "Hey! I gotta get me some of that!" And like crazed teenaged Hannah Montana fans rioting outside TicketMasters, investors rapidly began to lose their minds.

The problem was that there just wasn't enough people buying houses. How did they fix that? By applying the PT principle, of course. First, the S&L's started giving out loans to people who really, really couldn't afford them, using a variety of elaborate and convoluted scams like interest-only, balloon-payment, sub-prime mortgages to hide the fact that the buyer really never had any hope whatsoever of paying back the loan. Ever.

What? That's crazy you say? No bank is going to loan money to somebody who they know can't pay it back! That's insane.

Well, yeah, except that the S&L's didn't plan on getting their money back from the borrowers, they planned on getting it from Wall Street plus interest, and at the same time dump the inevitable loan default on the investment bank in one of the biggest bait & switch scams in history. And, they reasoned, nobody is getting hurt here, when the loans default the investment banks will repossess the properties in question, which we'll then buy back at bargain prices, and then sell those same batch of properties to another whole batch of suckers.

Shake, repeat as necessary until the cycle becomes self generating and self reinforcing - sort of like a perpetual motion machine of turd polishing.

Now, wait just a damned minute, Jim, say you in that outraged tone you use when you think I'm talking out my excretory orifice. That can't work, what about the second law of thermodynamics, you know, that bit about entropy increasing? No way your theory of cyclic turd polishing works.

Good, you're paying attention. And you are, of course, correct; perpetual motion machines always use more energy than they produce, always. But if you give them a big enough spin when you set them in motion, well, they look like the real McCoy - for a while, long enough to round up the suckers anyway.

See, for a while it looked like the whole complex mess was actually working - or in Wall Street terms, a bubble began to form. But it was just another scam, this time a pyramid scheme, because every time those mortgages cycled around in the perpetual motion machine they increased in value, and what was once a $180K property rapidly became an $800K property, or more. And the S&L's cheerfully kept handing out those loans.

But it was all an illusion, same as any perpetual motion machine, same as any good con. As with any con, they whored it up in window dressing, they gave the marks, er, sorry the investors the illusion of safety. In the banking industry that's called insurance. The investment firms bought insurance on the loans, exactly as a con artist does when he pulls out what appears to be his own money. In this manner they got the rating agencies to give the investments a AAA rating - and then they could go back to the investor and say, "This is a great and safe investment. But, don't take our word for it, see what the rating agencies say!" However, in this case, the investment firms were buying insurance from each other, and the money didn't really exist in the first place.

Sooner or later, every pyramid scheme collapse under it's own weight. Sooner or later every perpetual motion machine runs down. Sooner or later, you get overtaken by events.

The S&L's, the investment firms, the mortgage industry, they all knew that a certain percentage of those loans would default, hell, they depended on it to keep the machine turning. But it's a fine line, too little and there's not enough input to keep the flywheel spinning (i.e. not enough turnover to keep the demand tight and the value high), too much input and and the money just vanishes and you're left holding the bag.

And that's just exactly what happened. Energy prices soared. Everything suddenly costs more. All those balloon payments suddenly came due. People just couldn't keep up with all of that debt, and an increasing number began to default on their loans. Since the insurance was provided by the industry itself, and it all got called in at once, well there just wasn't enough dough left for a rainy day. So the industry started borrowing money themselves, from each other, and from overseas. They borrowed billions and billions and billions, and kept plugging it into the stock market, like a gambling addict pillaging his kid's college fund in order to keep playing online poker and hoping to hit it big. But it just didn't happen.

And the bottom fell out.

And here we are, standing in the wreckage and looking for someone to blame, and just who is that?

Well, nominally, it's the S&L's and the investment firms' fault. What they were doing was as dishonest as any scam artist.

But ultimately, it's every dumbass who bought into the PT Principle in the first place. You can't get conned unless you let yourself get conned, and the best marks are the stupid greedy ones - that's how come the Spanish Prisoner Scam (I.e. the Nigerian Letter Scam) is still going strong two hundred years after it first surfaced. Everybody that just had to have a shiny new house they really couldn't afford in order to impress both themselves and their neighbors, is the root cause of this mess. Everybody who actually thought they were going to get something for nothing is the root cause of this mess.

Did we learn anything?

No.

Not one damned thing.

You know how I know this? Because I'm watching Congress try to fix it right now...

Joe America: Bitchin'! Hey, what's it fucking cost?
Congress: That's the bitchin' part about it! It don't matter! If you can't afford it, fucking finance it!

...by borrowing billions from foreign nations to give it to the very same con artists who bilked us out of our life savings in the first Goddamned place.

Congress: This is gonna be with you for the rest of your life! And when you die, they can bury you in it!
Joe America: Awesome, Dude!

___________________________
Update: My proposed solution to the US financial sector crisis can be found here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stuff and Stuff

Folks I've used up my allotted blogging time this morning chatting with friends online and dealing with a couple of other things and my neighborhood is in chaos this morning due to major house fire and explosion.

I'm pressed for time today, I had some technical issues yesterday - a critical tool quit working correctly, just when I needed it most - and so I'm still not done with yesterday's work. As such, I'm headed out to the shop to finish the job, which is due tomorrow. Sorry, that pays, you don't. Suck it up.

Anyway, not wanting to leave you completely hung out to dry, do yourself a favor and go visit Chris Gerrib at Private Mars Rocket and read his spin on why fighter pilots make lousy presidents, I think you'll enjoy it. The comments are interesting too, but I decided to stay out of the fray (small fray, but still I just don't have time this morning).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why I hate the Amish

Oh shut up already.

I don't really hate the Amish - in fact I think that in general the Amish are a pretty cool bunch. They keep to themselves, don't get all evangelical, make excellent food, and are often the most outstanding craftsmen. Other than leaving horse manure all over the roads, I've really got nothing against them at all and wish more people were such good neighbors.

But, see, a couple of weeks ago I took on a woodworking job making Amish baskets for a wholesale customer in Anchorage.

What the hell is an Amish basket you ask?

Well, see you take a 5/8" thick oak plank, cut it to oval, and then very carefully cut a biased spiral into it using (in my case) a bandsaw (the Amish? I assume they use a hand-powered coping saw). You glue the rim back together and then push down on the middle to expand the spiral. Add a pivoting handle and base, and you have a collapsible wooden basket.

Like this:


From Stonekettle Station

The folded basket on the left is my spruce prototype. The one in the middle is the original that the wholesaler wanted me to use as a template. And the one on the right is the first production unit I completed (it still needs finish sanding and an application of Danish oil).

Here's the same batch with the production copy folded and flipped over so you can see the base:

From Stonekettle Station

These things are an enormous pain the ass.

First I had to find a source of reasonably priced red oak here in the MatSu. Oak is one of the most commonly used woods in North America - but red oak only grows in the eastern part of the US and lower Canada:

image

However, red oak is what the customer wanted, so red oak is what he gets. Fortunately I know most of the saw mill and lumber yard owners around here, and my favorite place, Poppert Milling in Wasilla, had recently imported some very nice planks in the right size and the owner gave me an excellent price (yes, for those of you paying attention, you can get red and white oak at Lowes and Home Depot - at about $12 a foot , not board foot, a foot per 8" wide x 1/2" thick plank - and I needed it at least 9" wide x 5/8", which is twice as much. And I needed a lot of it. Which would come to about twice as much for material alone as what I can reasonably charge per piece. Two words: Screw. That). Anyway, once I got the oak, I had to plane and cut it into 9"x18"x5/8" blanks.

Then I cut out the handle and basket portion on the vertical bandsaw. Then carefully freehand cut the spiral into the basket blank using the other bandsaw with the table set to angle cut, this is lengthy and nerve wracking process requiring continuous concentration. As you cut deeper into the blank the spiral becomes looser and looser, which means the blade tends to wander around unless you're paying attention. Additionally the cuts are on a bias, 5-7 degrees depending on the thickness of the wood and the saw blade. This is so that when you expand the basket the top of the outer part binds against the inner part, otherwise the whole thing would just pull apart like a big wooden spring. The bias has to be exactly right, too steep and the coil will pull through, too shallow and the coil will not expand far enough leaving a very shallow basket. Make one mistake, and the whole thing is scrap, you can't fix it - and that's a foot and a half of expensive wood I have to toss in the burn barrel.

Once that's done, you glue the rim back together, making a closed expandable spring. Then the whole thing has to be sanded, and the handle drilled and screwed into place. The screws are covered with wooden oak plugs and sanded smooth. And that was a pain, because when I tried to sand the plugs smooth on the disk sander - they burned, a common problem with oak and cherry. And so I had to sand them with a flap sanding wheel at low speed on the drill press, and that took about three times longer than I had budgeted for.

Next, the bases have to be glued and nailed on. And that's where I am at the moment. I've got to finish this pile today:

From Stonekettle Station

That's about 40 pieces there on the project cart. And once the bases are done, I'll do a quick powered finish sanding of the whole run, and then coat them all in Danish oil.

So, you know, if you don't see me for the rest of the day, I'm in the shop hating the Amish.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

And Again, Attention Idiot Parents

Here's the thing, parents, it's the 21st Century.

Got that?

It's not the Dark Ages, we understand what causes communicable disease. It's not the miasma of bad air, or phases of the moon, or God's wrath, or demons, or an imbalance of the body's humors.

It's germs: viruses and bacteria and sometimes prions.

Yes, in some emerging diseases, and even some that have been around as long as we have, not all of the mechanisms and propagation vectors are understood. But for the most part we have a fairly thorough understanding of what causes infectious disease.

And while we may not know everything about disease, and we may not be able to prevent or cure everything, yet, there are some things we pretty definitely do know about disease prevention:

Disease is not prevented by praying. During the Black Death - i.e. the Bubonic plague pandemic that ravaged Europe and Asia for most of the 14th Century - 75 million people died or nearly 50% of Europe's total population and, trust me here, those pious bastards were praying their infected asses off. They sang hymns and flagellated themselves until they bled and prayed for deliverance and prostrated themselves before God almighty - and still they died, in great festering, pus-filled masses. Religion, faith, prayer, and all the cathedral building in the world did exactly jack shit to save those people. All the belief in the world will not prevent the spread of infectious disease, especially when you're shitting in your water supply or kissing the bishop's ring along with every other sneezing gomer in the area. Period. What's that? Oh, I'm wrong am I? Prayer does work you say? Okey Dokey, let's take the Pope and drop him into the middle of Panama and see if his prayers keep him from getting malaria, or sleeping sickness in the African Congo, or yellow fever, or anthrax, or etc. In fact, during the Black Death, one of the hardest hit populations was the clergy due to their proximity to large numbers of the infected. Their supposed piety didn't help them at all, and in point of fact their very beliefs were in large part a contributing factor in their infection. Again, your religion will not, in any way, prevent or reduce your chances of being infected if you come in contact with a communicable disease vector. Period.

Disease is not prevented by 'alternative' medicine. All the organically farmed homeopathic herbal supplements in the world won't keep you from getting diphtheria, amoebic dysentery, measles, mumps, or the common cold. I don't care if you 'treat the whole body' by eating a bale of raw saw grass and purging the 'toxins' from your system by drinking a gallon of pureed wheat germ every day under a bank of broad spectrum sun lamps. If somebody with whooping cough sneezes in your face, there's a pretty high probability that sooner rather than later you're going to be yakking your fluid filled lungs out on floor.

Disease is not prevented by ancient remedies, 'natural medicine', harmonic resonance, roots, bark, crystals, star alignment, or juju magic. Ancient Native Americans did not have some secret cure for disease now lost to modern civilization. Their lives were brutal, short, and not in some kind of 'harmony' with nature - it only appears that way due to the insulation of time and the biased nostalgia of a certain type of predisposed perception to see pre-industrial Native Americans, Aboriginals, and and other native peoples as some kind of magical people who lived in peace and harmony at one with the universe. It's not true and never was. When Europeans first came to the New World, they brought with them all of the diseases of their world. Those diseases decimated the native populations. All the Ghost Dancing, shamanic magic, and native cures were useless. When British General Jeffrey Amherst, later Lord Amherst, led the Redcoats against the Ottawa and their native allies in what is now New York and Pennsylvania, he had his men distribute smallpox infected blankets to the Indians. All the juju magic and ancient remedies did nothing, nothing, not one damned thing, to stem the resulting decimation among the tribes of the Great Lakes. If you believe that ancient tribal medicine will keep you from getting smallpox, well, then you are an idiot, and really, good luck with that.

The Government, the Pharmaceutical Companies, and the Insurance agencies are not in some big secret global conspiracy to make you sick and keep you that way. Scientists are not a bunch of evil bastards bent on turning your kids into autistic zombies or giving gay people aids so that the pharmaceutical companies can make billions off of your suffering. The vast majority of the folks at the CDC and government labs, commercial research organizations, and the like have dedicated their lives to making the world a better and safer place - and in large part they have done just that. From about 1910 to the mid 1950's, polio epidemics ravaged America, Europe, New Zealand, and Asia. Millions were infected and hundreds of thousands were killed or crippled - in 1952, there were nearly 60,000 cases of polio in the United States alone. Government and private industry poured billions of dollars into research and eventually Scientists like Salk and Sabin found a vaccine. That vaccine has saved millions and reduced the number of polio cases to less than a thousand world wide annually. If that vaccine had not been found, and widely implemented, polio would be a full blown pandemic in our modern world of high population densities and easy global transportation. If the government and pharmaceutical companies were really truly bent on placing profit over public health they would have been far better served to withhold the cure and keep making iron lungs - a complex medical machine costing hundreds of thousands of dollars - vice the paltry couple of bucks they make off each polio shot. Something I want to point out here: Just because pharmaceutical companies make a profit, does not automatically make them evil bastards or engaged in conspiracy to steal your money by making you sick. What? What's that you say? Pharmaceutical companies should just give that shit away? Out of some kind of humanitarian ideal, right? Bah. Blow it out your ass. Pharmaceutical companies are just like any other company, altruism is all fine and well, but unless you've got a big fat endowment or, you know, actually make a profit, you won't be in business very long. Here's the thing that kills me about that particular mind set: homeopaths who sell bottles of powered roots and blended saw grass smoothies make a profit, the churches make a profit (100% tax fee here in the US, and don't try to tell me that the major churches, TV evangelists, and the tent preachers aren't making a profit), the folks who sell crystals and snake oil miracle cures on the home shopping network and the Internet make a profit - so why aren't they evil bastards too? Seriously, if everybody was healthy all of these people would be out of business - how come they're not part of the global conspiracy instead being the ones leading the charge? In fact, the people who stand to gain the most from a global conspiracy are conspiracy theorist themselves. Without a pharmaceutical company conspiracy, all of these people would be nobodies. Now, do pharmaceutical companies charge too damned much for their products? Well, that depends entirely on your view point doesn't it? Let's look at an example: the cocktail of protease inhibitors that are used to treat AIDS costs literally thousands of dollars per month, and they cost the pharmaceutical companies billions to develop - a condom costs about fifty cents. A rather large number of folks with AIDS got the disease through risky behavior, and are demanding that somebody, anybody, but especially the pharmaceutical companies pay for the cure. Another example, a pack of cigarettes costs about $6 here in the Alaska. A pack a day smoker spends about $200 a month on smokes, give or take, and over two thousand a year. What's that? Sixty, seventy thousand over thirty years? The drugs, Spiriva (tiotropium) used to treat COPD, a form of emphysema, can cost well over a hundred dollars a month, or about the same as the habit that gave the victim the disease in the first place. So, let's dispense with the bullshit that pharmaceutical companies are villains, shall we? Should there be regulation? Sure. Should there be some kind of assistance for folks who need medicine and can't afford it? Sure. And etc. Now, I don't want this post to wander off into some kind of discussion of socialized medicine or national insurance or health coverage. But the bottom line here is that there are enough diseases and emerging diseases without the either the government or the pharmaceutical industry colluding to make you sick and keep you that way - in fact, they make an even larger profit by doing just the opposite.

And last: The Internet is biased. The sea of information is vast and limitless. Some of it is accurate, some if it is widely off the mark, some of it manufactured whole cloth by the deluded or the insane or the stupid, some of it is outdated, and some of it is generated spontaneously by hysteria, fear, and ignorance. If you believe something, and you search for it - you'll find plenty of reasonable sounding information to support your belief. The results of the following searches produce completely different results: Vaccines cause autism and autism. Both are biased for a variety of reasons. The first phrase is indicative of a bias in search criteria, i.e. the searcher already suspects that vaccines cause autism and is looking for supporting information. Additionally, all modern search engines are biased, deliberately so, with search results weighted by a large number of factors. In many cases this deliberate bias is an advantage to the search when looking for basic information or services. However, when it comes to the foundation of belief systems, this bias can be a form of self reinforcing information warfare and unintended manipulation of perception.

Now to the point of this post, which is this: Get your Goddamned kids immunized or keep them home.

No. Shut the hell up. Shut up and go out right now and get your kid immunized. Drop the hysterical, pseudo scientific, mumbo jumbo, juju, herbal homeopathic, religious bullshit. Get your kid immunized or keep him the hell away from my child. Keep him or her out of the public school system. You want to home school or send your kid to one of those religious schools where they pray away disease, fine by me, but keep your goddamned kid out of the public schools.

Should you use reasonable caution? Yes, absolutely. Should you get your information regarding vaccines from your doctor instead of some on-line forum full of crazed conspiracy nuts who believe exactly as you do? Hmmm, yeah, might be a good idea. Should you look at family history regarding sensitivity to certain types of vaccines? Yes. Should you ask about side effects and be observant for a reaction in your children? Yes, of course.

But for the love God, Parents, there is no damned reason whatsoever for your kid to show up at my son's school with a full blown case of fucking whooping cough.

You might think you're protecting your child, but not getting him or her immunized is no different than all of those people who ripped the flesh from their own backs in order to become more Christ-like during the Black Death. Their actions came from ignorance and a lack of real prevention methods - your actions come from ignorance alone. You are not protecting your child, you're putting him or her at risk. That's bad enough, but you're also risking my son's health - and that is completely unacceptable.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Winter in the Pass

Winter's coming folks.

Faster than I like too.

We wanted to get one last hike in before the snow falls, but unfortunately that just wasn't the cards. I've been in a lot of pain this last week and just could not see myself putting on the pack and the shoulder holster and slogging though the mud. Everything hurts, but especially my neck and shoulder. It's been inflamed for a week now, but it's getting better. Nothing particularly unusual for me, the damp and cold always cause me problems. Regardless, the scenery is spectacular this time of year, and we wanted to get out and enjoy it while we can.

So, this Saturday we settled for driving up to one of our favorite places, Hatcher's Pass, to let the dog and the boy play in the snow. Besides, my truck has heated seats and that's almost has good as a heating pad on my back. The road to the pass is still open, but it won't be for much longer, the snow is already down to the three thousand foot mark.

This is a panorama shot looking down from the pass at Government Peak. As always, you can click on the picture and get a higher resolution shot from my Picasa album.


From Stonekettle Station

I put the truck into 4-wheel drive and we bounced through the mud and slush up to the actual pass itself and looked down on Summit Lake. The lake is at about the 4000 foot elevation mark and it was about 35F out. The lake is pretty deep and hasn't cooled down enough yet to freeze over, but it won't be much longer before the ice starts to form.

From Stonekettle Station

On the way back down from the summit, I stopped to take a few pictures and my son climbed up the hill to pick a few late season wild blueberries.

From Stonekettle Station
The hills here are covered in wild low-bush blueberries and a lot of folks come up here with hand sweeps to pick them by the bucket full. Unfortunately this summer we've had torrential rain and very little sunshine. The berries need a lot of sunlight to develop a high sugar content, and this year is just didn't happen, so they're bitter and not that good tasting - or said my wife and son, me personally I don't care much for blueberries and didn't bother trying them.

While my son was roaming the hillside the clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight illuminated the valley floor and I was able to get a nice series of shots:

From Stonekettle Station

Yesterday I was feeling a bit better and was able to wear the shoulder holster for a while. So we took a nice hike through the yellowing foliage along some of our neighborhood trails. Didn't see any bears or moose, though they're about. I also didn't get any pictures, so you'll just have to imagine the deep Alaskan woods in your mind.

Today the pain is better, though I can't turn my head very far. I've got a pile of work in the shop that needs to be done and a couple of errands to run. More later.

So, what did you do with your weekend? I mean besides Jaunt off to Florida and such.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Big Damn Science

As I'm sure most of you know, we're big on the cutting edge sciences here at Stonekettle Station.

Especially Plasma Physics.

With all the hoopla surrounding the Large Hadron Collider , the Stonekettle Station Research Division wanted to do our part for the advancement of entertainment science - you know before those crazy Swiss bastards cross the streams and the world ends in a 12" ball of compressed degenerate matter orbiting near light-speed somewhere north of the chocolaty new singularity that used to be Switzerland.

Now, despite the enormous capability of the LHC and it's Bush-like potential for world ending catastrophic failure, it can't do everything. Like Rush Limbaugh's ego, it's just too damned big. It's a little known fact that originally, the LHC was created by scientists out of spare stereo parts in order to warm a cup of Top Ramen noodles to the temperature of the Solar corona, but those little Styrofoam cups kept exploding with great big Bangs - eliciting shouts of "Oh God!" and fits of giggles from the hungover post-grads (In fact, LHC originally was an acronym for "Look! Holy Crap!" Fact, you can look it up.)

And that's how all great scientific discoveries are made, by accident - usually food related.

CERN purchased a smaller microwave oven for the research staff and turned the LHC towards the hunt for the so called "Oh God!" particle.

Unfortunately, like the rumored Alaska State Quarter, the God particle as never actually been seen by man and in fact may not even exist. The hunt for it is all consuming and leaves CERN scientists little time for pursuing other less famous and even more elusive particles such as the "One Missing Sock" particle, the "Iraqi WMD" particle, or the highly theoretical "George W. Bush's Brain" particle.

And that's where we at Stonekettle Station come in.

About eight months ago we set out to acquire our very own high definition plasma-based electron supercollider. And as every particle physicist can tell you, the best place to find such cutting edge, advanced entertainment research technology is COSTCO. There was some dispute between the scientists and the accounting department regarding the best base technology, plasma projection or LCD - the research assistant didn't care, just as long as it was "Playstation compatible with minimal lag time and big honking speakers." Eventually we settled on a Mitsubishi Plasma DLP wide-screen in the 40gigawatt range with like a bizillion different kinds of input and an gargantuan, multifunction, super technical remote control (seriously, the manual for the remote was the size of the LA Yellowpages and came in four incomprehensible languages, including Engrish, so you know it's good science).

After some initial configuration issues, we brought the monster on-line seventeen months ago and have been smashing electrons into a non-reflective charged 67" wide screen and conducting advanced research across a broad spectrum of digital cable and HD DVD's ever since.

So, for the last year, things have been good - no sign of that GWB Brain particle though and we believe that it may not be a particle at all, but rather a "collapsed wave function." We did however find two missing socks and a catnip mouse when we moved the older tube-based electronic collider to make room for the new machine.

Unfortunately, Monday, we accidentally generated a black hole, a big rectangular one.

There was much screaming, crying, and general waving of the arms in an aimless Nancy Pelosi like fashion - we had intended to to conduct a thorough review of last season's Heroes in preparation for the upcoming new season's research and the failure of our equipment threw the entire lab schedule into disarray. Besides, Monday night Alton Brown was doing a review of the physics behind beer and we missed it. This vexed us mightily.

Eventually after much rigorous testing (which consisted mostly of my wife looking for the manual, and me whacking the side of the device and cursing), we determined that the main mercury-sodium plasma-electron projector (i.e. the "Lamp") had failed or what we in the applied technical sciences refer to as "shit the bed."

After much consternation upon discovering that a replacement lamp cost several million dollars (OK, $200 plus S&H, but still), the accounting department remembered that we had gotten COSTCO's automatic 2-year warranty extension. We contacted COSTCO "Concierge Service" (which I guess, is the fancy way of saying "service department," but then again "concierge" lends an international flavor to the process and that can't be bad). They talked us through some highly rigorous diagnostics, i.e. unplug the TV, now plug it back in, and try to turn it on. The diagnostics confirmed the lamp failure.

COSTCO then promised us a replacement unit via 2-day UPS Air, which arrived right on schedule yesterday.

The replacement unit contained directions and many, many dire warnings about mercury poisoning and high voltage electricity which I mostly just ignored. I unscrewed the access panel on the back of the unit -which contained even more dire and horrific warnings about mercury, high voltage, user serviceable parts, bright lights, gremlins, particle beams, black holes, and animal dander - popped out the old module and inserted the new one.

No joy.

Seems you actually have to put the cover back on before powering up the particle accelerator, there's a safety lock out. Don't want an undergrad accidently leaving a LEGOS Star Wars storm trooper in there, or you know, one of the research animals). Not wanting to endanger the genetic future of everybody in a hundred mile radius, I reattached the cover and fired that sucker up.

The lights dimmed. Two nuclear cores at the Palmer Atomic Power Plant and Bakery came online under emergency startup, oil prices rose, and the resulting photonic barrage of excited electrons blinded the Hubble Space Telescope and disrupted weather patterns from here to Nome. Over head, the aurora flamed and roared.

It was, as they say, a thing of beauty.

So, after a four day hiatus, Stonekettle Station high definition plasma research is back in business, riding the razor sharp edge of particle physics and bringing us all one step closer to the heat death of the universe and the third season of Heroes in digital HiDef.

You can thank me later, if we're not all eaten by black holes first.

______________________________________

All of which is a fancy way of saying that since I didn't have anything else to blog about today, I talked about my stupid TV set.

One thing, COSTCO Concierge Service was just plain outstanding. Prompt, courteous, knowledgeable, and aggressive about living up to their obligation. I've rarely been so impressed by customer service. After we contacted them initially, they assigned a dedicated technician to our problem, gave us a direct access phone number, ordered the part, and called back the next day to confirm that the part was on its way via the most expedited method possible and to give me a tracking number. They asked if I was comfortable performing the replacement swap-out myself or if I would prefer a service technician to come to my house and take care of it. Once I confirmed that I felt fully qualified to open the set and change what was essentially a big damn light-bulb, they provided me with a complete set of directions and a toll free number to call if I needed real-time assistance during the process. They also provided return postage for the failed unit. And they just called back here about ten minutes ago to confirm that I had received the part and that everything was working properly.

And that, folks, is how you do customer service. Outstanding COSTCO, and thanks, you've got yourself a dedicated customer.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Offline for the morning

Folks, I'm strapped this morning.

I've got a couple of things inbound that I have to deal with. So, no posts this morning.

But I'll have something good later. In the meantime go read Sarah Palin's email or something, I'll be back in a while.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Foot, Mouth - Never a Good Combination

Interviewer: "Do you think Sarah Palin has the experience to run a major company, like Hewlett-Packard?"

Carly Fiorina: "No, I don't. But you know what? That's not what she's running for."

Heh, heh.

That response by Fiorina, herself the former CEO of HP and an initial contender for McCain's running mate, would have been just another glib off-the-cuff remark - if she wasn't one of McCain's top advisors and spokespeople.

She made that gaff on St. Louis radio station KTRS yesterday - and, fairly obviously, realized that she'd put her foot in her mouth. So, during another interview, an hour later with NBC's Andrea Mitchell, she tried to explain the above remark in more detail by saying, "Well, I don't think John McCain could run a major corporation. I don't think Barack Obama could run a major corporation. I don't think Joe Biden could. But that's not the same as being the president or vice president of the United States."

Predictably Obama's campaign wonks went bugshit crazy over that remark, and by a number of accounts McCain himself was furious with Fiorina.

But wait, it gets better - McCain's top economic advisor, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, in an effort to address questions regarding McCain's economic and technical knowledge, basically claimed in front of the world yesterday that John McCain invented the Blackberry.

Bawahahahahahaha!

Oh hell yes, this campaign is nothing if not entertaining. Who'd have thought that that John "I was a POW Goddamnit!" McCain and Al "bunnies, and trees and rainbows, oh my" Gore would have something in common? Who says there isn't hope for a bipartisan government? I tell you, when the pinnacle of conservative economic business technology connects seamlessly over the liberal Internet, when John and Al have something in common, well it just gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling all over. And frankly, the thought of liberals looking at their Blackberries with sudden horror, or conservatives suddenly realizing that their communication device is connecting over the Daily-Kos powered Internet give me more than a touch of glee.

Now, obviously (at least it's obvious to me) neither Fiorina or Holtz-Eakin meant their words the way they were taken - but taking sound bites out of context is an old and approved campaign tactic and people like Fiorina and Holtz-Eakin should have known better than to make impromptu remarks.

Fiorina is correct, mostly - the president of the United States is not the same as the CEO of a major company. Alas, maybe our economy would be better if it were. But I do understand where she was coming from with that statement (truthfully, HP's board of directors didn't think Fiorina was able to run HP either, so they ditched her, which you know, kind of makes her an expert, just saying). But seriously, what the hell was she thinking? Talk about a case of uncontrolled verbal diarrhea - help me! I can't stop!

And Holtz-Eakin wasn't actually saying that John McCain personally invented the tool Palin uses like a crack addict (seriously, have you seen that woman's thumbs? I'll bet she could bench press a lipstick covered pitbull with those mitts), any more than Al Gore actually claimed that he personally invented the Internet. Holtz-Eakin was trying to make the point that McCain chaired the Senate Commerce Committee and helped to create a climate of technology based economic growth - i.e. McCain is both technologically and economically savvy. That's what he meant but that's not what he said, and he's been around long enough to know better.

When you're a spokesman, you stick to the script. If you deviate from the approved talking points, especially in campaign politics, you are absolutely guaranteed to end up ass deep in starving alligators.

And McCain himself isn't immune - he and Palin have both engaged in some serious truth stretching if not outright falsehoods. But, yesterday McCain said, "I was Chairman of the Commerce Committee that oversees every part of our economy." Well, no, that's just plain wrong. The Senate Commerce Committee doesn't oversee a couple of critical portions of our economic foundation, in fact by law the committee is excluded from addressing credit, financial services, and housing finance. Those things are the purview of the Senate Banking Committee - and they are the very things that are right now crashing and burning. McCain might want to think twice about claiming to be part of the process that led directly to the current economic meltdown, or to claim knowledge and experience in areas where he clearly has none.

Both campaigns are scrambling - Obama to take advantage of the GOP's hoof and mouth outbreak, and McCain's people are jumping to damage control stations.

Hilarity ensues.

But in between chuckles I'm feeling a ominous foreboding.

If these are the types of advisors John McCain has running his campaign, who does he plan to listen to once he actually is in charge of the economy? And if Obama is the type of person to revel in sound bites taken out of context, clearly out of context, deliberately out of context, what kind of leader and role model will he be?

And suddenly things aren't so funny, are they?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Small Confrontations

Yesterday we had a bit of an, uh, issue.

My son got into a fight, sort of.

There was some name calling and stone throwing - and then my son got punched in the stomach by a much bigger neighbor kid.

I don't know the neighbors in question very well - not at all actually.  They live across the road, through the trees and I don't see them very much. Alaska is kind of funny that way, especially my neighborhood, people are kind of standoffish and keep to themselves. On one side, I have 'the crazy bastard' - literally mad as a hatter and just plain weirdly hostile (from what I understand he was a POW in Vietnam and suffers severely from PTSD. Regardless, he's an asshole). On the other side we have a young couple with three very young children.  They're quite nice, though we have little in common with them. Their children play in my yard and the adults come by once in a while for a beer and to talk in the shop. They are both former military, and both served in the combat zone, and we like them just fine though honestly we don't talk much.  I have a lot of property and a lot of space and I like the peace and quiet and so the lack of closeness with my neighbors doesn't bother me much, though sometimes I wish it were different.

Anyway back to the neighbors across the street, like I said I don't know them.  They've got six kids, three girls and three boys. The oldest girl is married and the oldest boy is in jail for drugs or something.  The youngest boy and girl are my son's age, and the middle boy is a teenager.  The middle girl I don't know anything about, and I rarely see her.  The youngest boy is a friend of my son's and they often play together here or over there. The kid is a little slow and he's one of those children with a perpetually runny nose, but he seems nice enough and my son enjoys spending time with him.  I've waved at the parents a few time as they've driven past, and they've done the same and that's about all the interaction we've had.  They're quiet and keep to themselves. Their house is beautiful and the property is very well kept. I've been told that they are either first or second generation Russian immigrants, I don't know this for certain, but it wouldn't surprise me. Alaska has a large population of Russian emigres.  I do know that they belong to some kind of religion that doesn't permit alcohol, TV, or the Internet. But they're not evangelical about it and have never shown up on my doorstep to tell me how I can get saved, so that's about as much as I know.

The problem is the middle son, the teenager.  The kid's a bully.  He pushes his little brother around and has occasionally bullied my son.  Now, bullies piss me off.  But, my opinion is that kids are going to run into to conflict and they should learn how to handle it (short of violence) at as early an age as possible.  So, I usually give my son advice on how to handle things by either leaving the situation or by talking it out. But I've had to step in a few times and I've spoken to the teenager about it, harshly upon occasion, and things get better for a while.

Yesterday, however, the situation turned violent.

My son and his friend went for a ride on their bicycles, down to the local park.  Now, where most of you are from this normally isn't a big deal - my son is twelve and smart and the park is just down the road back behind our house.  However, here in Alaska there are bears and moose and other environmental dangers that you folks in the lower 48 probably don't think much about. And so, it's a big step for me to allow my son out of my sight - even so, if I know there is wildlife about I make him carry a radio and check in every fifteen minutes.  One thing I usually don't worry about is other kids.

The teenager followed them.  Out of boredom, I'm sure - I do vaguely remember what it was like to be fifteen - and certainly not because he was actually interested in what the two younger kids were doing.  Once at the park he started acting the bully. Pushing his brother around and throwing rocks at the other kids.

Here's the thing.  I don't want my son starting anything, but on the other hand I don't want him becoming somebody else's punching bag either.  I have admonished him a number of times to stand up for himself, however, I've explained that I don't want him hitting anybody, unless it's solely to defend himself.  Apparently (yeah, try getting a straight summary of events from an upset twelve-year old) my son yelled at the older boy, more rocks were thrown, my son threw a rock in return and then decided to heed my instructions regarding such events and come home. 

At which point the teenager blocked his path - and then grabbed him by the throat and punched him very hard in the stomach.

My son managed to get away, hop on his bike and came to find me where I was working in the shop. He was crying and extremely angry, holding his stomach.

I got the story out of him, examined the marks on his throat and stomach (a large bruise just below the sternum) and my blood began to boil.  Schoolyard fights are inevitable, kids tussle all the time, it's part of growing up - and hopefully they'll grow out of it before anything drastic happens. But that teenager is twice the size of my son and this was far beyond the kind of thing I'm going to put up with in any way shape or form. My son could have been seriously injured from such a blow.

I told my son to stay home and then stomped across the street to talk to the neighbors.

I found the mother in her driveway and spoke harshly to her. I explained bluntly that her son was a bully, that I had witnessed him hitting his brother and had put a stop to it more than once, and I explained exactly what he had done to my son. The teenager came to stand sullenly beside his mother while I was talking, and then tried to interrupt - this was a tactical mistake on his part, because I then spoke very harshly to him. I explained in no uncertain terms what would happen the next time I witnessed any aggression in any form by the boy. I didn't threaten either of them physically, I explained that if any member of her family ever attempted to put their hands on my son again I'd have the person in question arrested (with the oldest son in jail I think this was a very telling threat to the both of them).  I made sure they understood exactly where I was coming from in no uncertain terms. Then I left.

The mother didn't seem particularly intimidated, but she didn't seem particularly concerned either. This irritated me to no end.

Two hours later I saw the father's truck come home.

And fifteen minutes after that he and his very, very, very, very contrite son were standing in my shop. The father introduced himself and apologized sincerely - a hard thing to do, I'm sure. He's a big guy, a construction worker, and doesn't look like anybody's pushover. But he was obviously embarrassed by his son's behavior and when he got done apologizing, he had the boy apologize - not just for hitting my son but for being disrespectful towards both my son and myself.  Respect, and not the pseudo-tough guy kind either - the man was embarrassed because his son had been disrespectful of other human beings, both in word and in deed.

That, folks, impressed me a great deal - and I have to say that I liked the guy immediately (and as a father I admit I understood exactly where he was coming from and sympathized very much).

We talked for while, and I told the teenager I was impressed that he had the courage to apologize (even though it was under duress, I'm sure, but still...), and that it often takes a bigger man to apologize than it does to hit somebody.  I gave the father an open invitation to visit the shop whenever he liked, though I got the impression he probably won't.  I had my own son apologize for yelling and throwing a rock, even if he did feel it was warranted - and after neighbors left I talked to my son about how he could have handled the initial confrontation better and maybe avoided escalation altogether.

This probably won't be the last fight I have to sort out, that just comes with parenthood. But hopefully it'll be the end of problems with the kid across the street, and at least I've finally met the neighbors.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Constitutional Spam

Jeremy Jaynes walked out of prison yesterday.

Never heard of Jeremy Jaynes?

Chances are you've gotten email from him, especially if you have an AOL account.

Jaynes was the first convicted felony spammer. He was sent to prison for nine years by Virginia Circuit Court Judge Thomas Horne in 2004 for sending thousands of unsolicited, anonymous emails to America Online users. He claimed it was his right to do so under the 1st Amendment.

Yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed with him, and today he is a free man.

Yesterday, the Virginia's high court reversed itself and struck down a state anti-spam law, passed in 2003, declaring that the law violated Constitutional First Amendment rights to free and anonymous speech.

There is no doubt that Jaynes committed the act for which he was convicted - he sent over 10,000 emails from his home systems in a 24-hour period - in fact he did it at least times in a 30 day period - the emails were unsolicited with randomly generated blocked return addresses and fraudulent IP originators. When police raided his home, they discovered hundreds of compact disks containing over 176 million full e-mail addresses, 1.3 billion user names, and other private account information for mostly AOL subscribers. The information had been stolen from AOL by a former employer and bought by Jaynes. Jaynes was fully aware of the nature of the stolen information. Jaynes then used this information to send tens of thousands of unsolicited emails advertising a FedEx refund claims product, a Penny Stock Picker, and a Internet Browser History "Eraser" via disguised email and multiple Internet addresses.

Neither the possession of stolen information nor his subsequent use of the information is in question.

The question is whether or not Jaynes was protected under the Constitution when he choose to become a spammer.

While that Virginia Supreme Court agreed that Jaynes' actions were egregious, they ruled that he was indeed protected under the Constitution.

The problem with the Virginia law, according to the Virginia Supreme Court ruling, was that it was too broad in scope. Virginia's anti-spam law, the Virginia Computer Crimes Act Code 18 2-152.1 through 18 2-152.15, as currently written, outlaws all forms of unsolicited bulk email (providing the bulk email passes certain thresholds), not just commercial content. In other words, the act infringes on both anonymous political and religious free speech. From section [22] of the ruling,

"The IP address and domain name do not directly identify the sender, but if the IP address or domain name is acquired from a registering organization, a database search of the address or domain name can eventually lead to the contact information on file with the registration organizations. A sender’s IP address or domain name which is not registered will not prevent the transmission of the e-mail; however, the identity of the sender may not be discoverable through a database search and use of registration contact information.12

[12: In this case Jaynes used registered IP addresses, although the domain names were false.]

As shown by the record, because e-mail transmission protocol requires entry of an IP address and domain name for the sender, the only way such a speaker can publish an anonymous e-mail is to enter a false IP address or domain name. Therefore, like the registration record on file in the mayor’s office identifying persons who chose to canvass private neighborhoods in Watchtower Bible & Tract Society v. Village of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150 (2002), registered IP addresses and domain names discoverable through searchable data bases and registration documents “necessarily result in a surrender of [the speaker’s] anonymity.” 536 U.S. at 166. The right to engage in anonymous speech, particularly anonymous political or religious speech, is “an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.” McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n, 514 U.S. 334, 342 (1995). By prohibiting false routing information in the dissemination of e-mails, Code § 18.2-152.3:1 infringes on that protected right. The Supreme Court has characterized regulations prohibiting such anonymous speech as “a direct regulation of the content of speech." [emphasis mine]

Frankly, I think this is a load of crap. I think anonymous statements, religious, political, or otherwise are the ultimate form of cowardice. Personally, I doubt that the founding fathers intended freedom of speech to be used as a mechanism to annoy the hell out of the citizenry with anonymous junk mail, electronic or otherwise - especially considering that they themselves risked freedom, liberty, and their own lives by making political statements inciting revolution against the Crown. However, the traditional interpretation of the Constitution guarantee's the people to be anonymous if they so choose, a while I don't agree with the mindset behind it, it is the law of the land and must be upheld.

My formal legal training is restricted to use of deadly force in civilian/military applications and while I am certainly no expert on either the law in general or Virginia law in particular, it is fairly apparent to me that despite widespread condemnation, the Virginia Supreme Court is, of course, correct in its ruling. SCOTUS has repeatedly upheld the right of the people to make anonymous political and religious statements, and the Virginia law clearly violates that right as written.

However, I don't think the spirit of the Constitution guarantees anybody the right to infringe on my privacy or deluge my inbox with unsolicited electronic scams - including religious and political crap that I'm not interested in. It may be your right to speak your mind, anonymously or otherwise, but it is also my right not to have to put up with it, and when you insert your garbage into my computer so that I have to deal with it that's exactly what you're doing.

This is going to be an difficult problem to fix, it's not enough to simply change the law's wording to address only commercial bulk mailings. Jaynes' case not only points out a flaw in the law, it is a call to arms for clever and persistent spammers. See, because this was not Jaynes' first appeal, and this appeal was a major long shot requiring the Virginia Supreme Court to reverse itself - something courts are loath to do - and as such it serves as an inspiration for other spammers.

Because of the complex, convoluted, rapidly evolving and highly technical nature of electronic communications, there will almost always be a loophole for a clever and tenacious spammer to exploit. I can think of a dozen off the top of my head - declare yourself a religious organization for example, or an independent political organization, and claim your spam is fund raising in support of your beliefs - no different from Girl Scouts selling cookies online. Forgive me if I don't outline my other suggestions here, I have no intention of helping the spammers.

Virginia's Attorney general is appealing the ruling to the US Supreme Court, but I expect that Jaynes will remain a free man.

At least until Federal law is changed - and considering the level of technical acumen in Congress, I doubt that will be anytime soon.

Here's what I don't understand though, why wasn't Jaynes indicted on state charges of receiving stolen goods? He knowingly and willingly accepted proprietary information stolen from AOL. In fact, unless every one of those billions of names on his CD's lived in the state of Virginia, he's guilty of interstate receipt of stolen goods, making this a felony. The evidence has been both verified and entered into the court and I'm curious as to why Virginia didn't pursue this course of prosecution. Additionally, why was Jaynes not indicted on federal charges of violating the Privacy Act? Hell, for that matter, why wasn't AOL?

Virginia needs to fix their law, but until the US Government brings the full power of federal law to bear, the spammers will remain free and little more than inconvenienced.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A first look at Google's Chrome

Hmmm, looking at my stats I see a number of visitors are using Google's new browser, Chrome.

Interesting.

I've been playing around with Chrome for a couple of days. Usually a new product from Google seriously impresses me. Chrome? Meh, it's
okay, but it isn't going to be replacing Firefox as my default browser any time soon.

Compared to the bloated Microsoft Internet Explorer or even Mozilla's latest version of Firefox, Chrome is incredibly minimalist. Now, by minimalist I don't mean first generation
Mosaic or anything, but the browser doesn't exactly have a lot in the way of bells and whistles. True, that minimalist approach has a certain attraction, particularly because it's fast - much faster than either IE7 or FF3. Chrome has the basic stuff you'd expect in a modern broswer, tabs and image zooming and stealth mode (called an 'incognito page' in Chrome) and its full screen view (which is how I normally run a browser) isn't too bad, not as good as IE7, but better than FF3.

Chrome does have one cool feature that I really like - it keeps track of the sites you visit and puts them up as thumbnails, sorted by order of use, on any new tab. That's a neat and useful feature most of the time. Note that any pages viewed in an incognito window aren't recorded and so don't add to the indexing that drives this feature. So, you know, as long as you're using the incognito function, that Republican airport fetish site you visit on a regular basis won't appear on the top of your 'Most Visited' list. Probably a good thing, just saying.

Other than that though, there's not a lot to Chrome. There's no third-party add-on, or plug-in support - no first party either for that matter. I've seen a couple of geek tech sites that give you a methodology for adding Firefox add-ons using Chrome's bookmark function. Bah, this is a kludge at best and not real add-on functionality. And until I can add-in PicLens, colored tabs, IE tab (for Microsoft specific sites), and the like - Chrome is going to be more of a novelty than a useful tool to me.

There's no integrated spell check function - so if you notice a number of spelling errors in this post, it's because I'm using Chrome at the moment and flying solo without spell checking. Yeah, nobody want's that. No integrated spell checking? Seriously, it's 2008, Google, what the hell are you thinking?

I'd hoped that Google would at least provide specialized integration to their other products, Blogger, Picasa, Google Maps, Google Earth Plus, and etc. Nope. Chrome gives me no additional functionality with those service that I don't already get with Firefox.

Chrome's bookmark function? Sucky. It did import my Firefox bookmarks, but there isn't even sorting capability. There's minimalist, and then there's just plain primitive.

There's no download manager.

Now, knowing Google, and the kind of innovation and the just plain cool way they usually approach information technology, I suspect that Chrome will grow and rapidly evolve into a serious and advanced piece of internet software.

But the key word here is 'evolve' - because at the moment Chrome is somewhere in the Proterozoic era.

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Note: Chrome and blogger's editor don't exactly get along. Hence the weird mix of fonts in this post. I could fix it, but, you know, I think it just adds to the charm of this place.